The best books about chemistry that aren’t chemistry books

Who am I?

After many years of studying the subject and still more writing about it, my mind is still blown away by the fact that pretty much everything around you is a chemical of some kind. Even more impressive to me is that all of the molecules that make up everything you can see, smell, touch, and taste are made from combinations of just a handful of elements. The periodic table is a one-page summary of pretty much everything, the ultimate Lego kit to build a whole universe. I love finding out about and telling the stories of these incredible chemical constructions.

I wrote...

The Secret Lives of Molecules

By Kathryn Harkup,

Book cover of The Secret Lives of Molecules

What is my book about?

This is not a chemistry book. What happens when you really get under the skin of the world around you? Everything that surrounds us – and we ourselves – are made of molecules, constructed from a limited set of elements that can combine to form an almost limitless kaleidoscope of possibilities.

Dr. Kathryn Harkup reveals the inner lives of the invisible molecules that make up our world, ranging from the fundamental to the frivolous; via the psychedelic effects of caffeine to the deadly march of CO2 emissions. This is a book about the stories of discovery, the quirks of science and of human history that have enhanced our appreciation and understanding of the world.

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The books I picked & why

The Periodic Table

By Primo Levi, Raymond Rosenthal (translator),

Book cover of The Periodic Table

Why did I love this book?

Chemistry saves our lives every second of every day without us usually noticing it. Primo Levi’s personal history with chemistry perhaps saved him from the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

This extraordinary book is a series of snapshots from Levi’s life each linked to a different element. I would recommend reading anything Primo Levi has written, The Periodic Table is just the best place to start.

By Primo Levi, Raymond Rosenthal (translator),

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Periodic Table as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An extraordinary kind of autobiography in which each of the 21 chapters takes its title and its starting-point from one of the elements in the periodic table. Mingling fact and fiction, science and personal record, history and anecdote, Levi uses his training as an industrial chemist and the terrible years he spent as a prisoner in Auschwitz to illuminate the human condition. Yet this exquisitely lucid text is also humourous and even witty in a way possible only to one who has looked into the abyss.

Book cover of Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood

Why did I love this book?

An author I can’t recommend highly enough.

Sack’s biography of his childhood in London is full of chemical curiosity and surrounded by family members who shared his enthusiasm, encouraged his experimentation, and supplied seemingly endless fascinating stories about elements and chemistry. There are stories of Sacks making powerful stinks in the garden shed and the titular Uncle Tungsten who talked about metals as though they were friends.

By Oliver Sacks,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Uncle Tungsten as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This memoir from Oliver Sacks is both a departure from and an enhancement of his previous psychologically orientated 'medical' writing. Not only is it a beautifully written account of an English childhood - seasoned by a childish passion for science - but it is told from the intimate and revelatory perspective of one of the most important and humane writers on psychology alive today. Oliver Sacks has the literary artistry of WH Auden and the intellectual rigour and questioning mind of Stephen Jay Gould. The world authority in his field, this is a remarkable insight into the mind and background…

Book cover of Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World

Why did I love this book?

A biography of a molecule that features in my book.

Mauve changed fashion, industry, and medicine. While trying to make quinine in the lab, the only malaria drug available at the time, William Perkin created mauve, the first artificial dye. Other chemists later discovered malaria drugs derived from Perkin’s mauve.

By Simon Garfield,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mauve as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1856 eighteen-year-old English chemist William Perkin accidentally discovered a way to mass-produce color. In a "witty, erudite, and entertaining" (Esquire) style, Simon Garfield explains how the experimental mishap that produced an odd shade of purple revolutionized fashion, as well as industrial applications of chemistry research. Occasionally honored in certain colleges and chemistry clubs, Perkin until now has been a forgotten man.

"By bringing Perkin into the open and documenting his life and work, Garfield has done a service to history."-Chicago Tribune "[A]n inviting cocktail of Perkin biography, account of the dye industry and where it led, and social and…

Book cover of The Shocking History of Phosphorus: A Biography of the Devil's Element

Why did I love this book?

Yes, it’s a book all about one element, and that element just happens to be my favourite, but it’s also a book about biology, history, alchemy, ghosts, spontaneous human combustion, murder, industrial poisoning, and war.

I have spent plenty of time in the lab getting to know phosorus at a very personal level, but this book revealed a whole new side to the element. If, like me, you love the macabre and gothic, the sinister and the scientific, this is the element and the book for you.

By John Emsley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Shocking History of Phosphorus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Born of the age of alchemy and harbouring the kind of mysterious influence that alchemists sought, phosphorus brought wealth to a few but misery to many. For over 300 years, phosphorus maimed, killed, polluted and burned - sometimes on a terrifying scale. Yet, such were its perceived benefits that doctors prescribed it, every home contained it and whole industries were dedicated to its manufacture

'This is popular science at its best, a great subject, unfolded with the skill of the storyteller' - Lisa Jardine, Sunday Times

'An excellent and convincing read' - Financial Times

'This well-written book is an enlightening…

Book cover of The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler

Why did I love this book?

A thought-provoking book about ammonia, a molecule made easily in nature but with great difficulty by humans.

Fritz Haber was the chemist who found a way to make ammonia artificially, but he was a complicated and controversial figure. The industrial production of ammonia has fed billions through its use in fertiliser, and killed millions through its use for making explosives.

By Thomas Hager,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Alchemy of Air as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A sweeping history of tragic genius, cutting-edge science, and the Haber-Bosch discovery that changed billions of lives—including your own.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, humanity was facing global disaster: Mass starvation was about to become a reality. A call went out to the world’ s scientists to find a solution.

This is the story of the two men who found it: brilliant, self-important Fritz Haber and reclusive, alcoholic Carl Bosch. Together they discovered a way to make bread out of air, built city-sized factories, and saved millions of lives.

But their epochal triumph came at a price we…

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